The murder of 12 staffers at the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week sent shockwaves through the international writing community. It is early days to speak confidently about motive, but reports quickly surfaced that the gunmen were Muslim extremists reacting to cartoons published by the magazine depicting Muslims and the Prophet Muhammed in an offensive light.
Still reeling from this tragedy, writers then had to deal with a barrage of articles discussing the so-called “limits” to freedom of speech and whether it is incumbent upon them to “be responsible” in what they choose to write about. In a much-discussed statement, Will Self described our preoccupation with freedom of speech as a “fetish” and called for writers to exercise their freedom responsibly. Those who were surprised and disappointed by his stance had probably forgotten they were dealing with the 2015 version of Will Self – a man who is a conservative, normative shadow of his younger enfant terrible incarnation.
At least he stopped short of blaming the Charlie Hebdo writers for their own deaths, or suggesting that they should have known better. Other social media commentators were not so reticent. And while it is true that the cartoons they published were quite staggeringly offensive at times, and clearly designed to anger devout Muslims, it is important that this kind of inflammatory expression remains protected by law.
In South Africa it is quite likely that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists would have been found guilty of hate speech. Their cartoons might well have been suppressed by law – effectively banned. This is not something we should pat ourselves on the back for. Nor should we endorse the 2010 speech by Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani that has been much quoted and reposted since the Paris attacks. Mamdani calls for us to balance the social good of freedom of speech against other social goods such as civic peace. He particularly objects to the kind of bigotry directed at the poor and marginalised by members of the dominant socio-economic class.
But it is precisely when society is most threatened by schisms and inequalities – when random violence is knocking at the door – that freedom of speech needs to be most vigorously defended. Because those regulations that are supposedly introduced to protect the poor and vulnerable will one day be turned against them. Anarchic and disruptive voices, like those of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, need to be protected and given space to flourish. If we don’t like what they are saying we may criticise them, ridicule them and engage with them, but we should never suppress them.
In an effort to express their deep sympathy with the victims of the attack, and to show solidarity with the right to freedom of speech, many people worldwide have been adopting the #jesuischarlie (“I am Charlie”) slogan. The origins of this slogan can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie Spartacus. In the climactic scene, Roman soldiers ask the Spartan slaves to tell them who among them is Spartacus so that he can be executed by crucifixion. Spartacus steps forward and identifies himself. Then, one by one, all the other slaves step forward and say “I’m Spartacus”, until the Romans have no choice but to crucify them all.
The “I am Spartacus” rallying cry has been used ever since to identify oneself with the cause of an oppressed person. The Spartan slaves were not merely standing by their leader; they were explicitly espousing his cause.
There are those who have felt uncomfortable about adopting the “I am Charlie” slogan in recent days. They have been reluctant to identify themselves with this particular brand of satire. In return, they have been accused of victim-blaming and of being lukewarm in their support for freedom of speech. In some cases these accusations are justified. A blogger at the Vineyard of the Saker website states quite clearly that “Charlie Hebdo had it coming.” He describes the cartoonists’ actions as the equivalent of lying down in front of an oncoming train. He is apparently unaware of quite how insulting it is to the Muslim community to liken it to a ruthless juggernaut that will inevitably murder anyone who criticises it.
Other commentators have been shocked by the apparent racism, sexism and homophobia in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They don’t want to associate themselves with such controversial images. Which is surely fair enough. It must remain a matter of individual conscience whether one chooses to adopt the “I am Charlie” meme or not. There are other ways to express sympathy. It is not necessary to jump on this particular bandwagon.
It is true that the Charlie Hebdo brand of satire is difficult for those of the Anglo-American liberal tradition to understand. At first glance it looks like bigotry, but closer examination reveals unsuspected complexities. In one cartoon, the French minister of justice – a black woman – is portrayed as a monkey, which strikes one as appallingly racist. But the cartoonist’s intention was apparently to satirise a comment made by a member of the far right National Front. According to Anglo-American critical thinking, this would not make it any better. There is a clear line that satirists must not cross: they must never become that which they are trying to satirise. The French seem to draw this line elsewhere.
French people who have a long familiarity with Charlie Hebdo concede that their cartoons are frequently vulgar, obscene and offensive, but insist that it would be absurd to call them bigoted. They use words like “far-left”, “anti-authoritarian” and “pro-immigration” to describe them. One has to consider that there may be a cultural disconnect at play here. What looks to Anglo-American eyes like top-down bigotry is actually left-wing anarchic humour in its French context.
There has been a mystifying attempt to shut down dialogue about the Charlie Hebdo attack by reiterating the fact that real people died during it. “Their bodies are not even cold yet,” went the cry. Those journalists who tried to discuss it were derided as insensitive, ghoulish and even wicked. Not only have the Charlie Hebdo staffers been elevated to a form of sainthood they would undoubtedly have found galling in life, but their work has been reproduced by a mainstream media they deliberately turned their backs on.
Analysts who tried to grapple with the possible motivations behind the attacks, or to assess the type of satire Charlie Hebdo published, were condemned as insensitive brutes. Those who hesitated to adopt the “I am Charlie” slogan were vilified as apologists for the massacre.
Similar emotionalism deployed to shut down dialogue in this way came after the 9/11 attacks. That emotionalism still holds sway today. 9/11 is the great undiscussable event in American discourse. The dead were heroes and the attackers were conflated with the Iraqis and Afghans (who had nothing to do with it). The war on terror was launched, and every possible tactic from detention without trial to torture to illegal war was adopted in “avenging” their deaths.
It has been pointed out that two other atrocities occurred virtually at the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attacks – a car bomb in Yemen that killed 35, and an attack on Nigerian villages by Boko Haram that left an estimated 2 000 dead. No one has turned these anonymous dead into martyrs or suggested that the circumstances around their deaths are too precious to be discussed. No marches or parades or social media hashtags have been created in their honour.
This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with honouring the Charlie Hebdo dead, merely that our indifference to the deaths of people of colour in war-torn zones is shameful and needs to be challenged. No corpses are more sacred than others. There is no human tragedy so different or distinctive that it should not be discussed frankly and openly from every possible point of view.